Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient - Don Shriver

Eric Mount thoughtfully sent me an advance a copy of what he planned to say in his introduction of this occasion. I thanked him for his echoes of our work together when he was at Duke and I was at NC State, but I said to him: you know, there may be something missing. "There are some folk who think of me as undertaking to help Union Seminary recover institutionally from an apparent threat to its institutional existence in the 1970s." Helping an institution to recover itself was not my specialty but I must confess that helping such a recovery appealed to me as a significant life challenge.

As I was on the edge of accepting that challenge, the Dean of Emory's Candler School of Theology, Jim Laney, a member of this Society, must have observed my tilt towards taking initiatives, for he said out of his own experience, "You will find at Union that anything you think of doing will require cooperation with other actors in the institution."

It was an important reminder, one that no ethicist is likely to ignore. I'd like to think that we get invited to be leaders of institutions, not because we are more ethical than scholars of other disciplines but because we know that the study of ethics equips some of us to search for multi-valued and multi­ agent choices. (That respect for other agents of social justice impelled me to strike up teaching partnerships with faculty in five other professional schools across Broadway.) Some of my friends in this Society advised caution about Union's apparent interest in offering me the job as the first southerner, a non-graduate of Union, not yet an academic with any obvious experience as a seminary president, not to speak of one in 1970 with a reputation as a fractious faculty and an equally fractious body of students scarcely recovered from organized opposition to the Vietnam war.

A member of this society, Bill May, was consulted about these problems, and he recommended some bylaw changes that restored certain powers to the faculty. As every member of this society knows, by-laws and laws in general do not solve human conflicts. Least of all do they solve lingering resentments left over from past conflicts. Having written a PhD thesis on forgiveness in human affairs I knew something about that therapy for healing of wounds in collective human connections, but knowing about forgiveness and enacting it in a faculty still hurting from arguments over dismissing a president and taking sides in a national upheaval about a war were challenges of another order.

Truth to tell, more than once in my first encounter with student and faulty rage over budget cuts and ensuing cries of "injustice" left me pondering the line from T.S. Eliot, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." More than once I had to restrain my awareness that balanced budgets serve the survival of institutions. My one certainty was that Union Seminary was worth surviving. A lot of anger swirled around the halls of the place, some of it out of distress that anyone should think that so venerable an institution as Union could possibly go out of business. Before I arrived, someone told me of a conversation between two academics in a meeting of the AAR: One of them was Thomas Altizer. Said the one to him, "if any seminary is interested in Islamic studies, apparently Hartford Seminary's library may be up for sale. “Well," said Altizer, "I think one should wait for the Union library to be on the market." The story stirred something stubborn in me, "Who says it's going on the market.?" I guess it was a first bit of internal evidence that I was getting set to take the job at Union ---a first taste of anger at the very idea of Union going out of business. It was a beginning to my answer to the perplexing question, why does theological teaching and learning rouse such anger in its students, faculty, alumni, and members of its staff? How come God is on every side of the arguments? In the midst of these early controversies I wondered if I really was called to preside over this fractious place where my Virginia accent was occasionally taken as a sign that I would never be at home with the rough directness of the New York way of life. When the question of whether our non-academic staff might protect its interests by voting to join a citywide labor union, some assumed that this new southern-born president would surely oppose the idea. I had to mumble to myself, "Have any of you read pages in my recently published book where sympathy for the Textile Workers Union is easily visible on many a page?"

One of the happier features of my first year or two at Union was the chance to help fill some seven vacancies in the faculty in spite of financial woes. The names James Forbes, James Washington, Janet Walton, Larry Rasmussen, and Cornel West soon appeared on faculty doors, giving us a reason to think that we were restoring our reputation as promoters of social justice. Then too, reviving our ecumenical reputation, we installed a Roman Catholic sister, Janet Walton, and a distinguished preacher of the Pentecostal tradition, James Forbes, to take charge of liturgy in a renovated chapel designed in 1908.

In all of this, we certainly followed Jim Laney's advice to make change with cooperation and not mandate. We were often encouraged by the generosity and vision of our Board to Directors, whose members were legally considered by the State Of New York as in charge of the long-range survival of the institution. (Parenthetical concern relevant to current American politics: Would we be in such a mess now in this country if an elected president had the experience of being accountable to a board of directors? His business doesn't have one.)

Amid it all, at Union, we had debates familiar to all of you, as to whether INSTITUTIONS were friends or enemies of religious faith. The word "institution" suffered a low reputation in those 1970s, but my academic interest in institutions had considerable boost from the teachings of my mentors at Harvard, James Luther Adams and Robert Bellah. Adams had a motto, "You shall know them by their groups." Bellah reinforced in me the conviction, echoing Max Weber and Troelsch, that any truth deemed important for a coming generation, is a truth worth organizing. Sure, institutions grow old and irrelevant, but on their shaky frameworks we all depend, and keeping the frameworks repaired is a chief responsibility of administrator. I confess that I have frequently despaired of convincing future ministers of the church to see the word "ministry" embedded in the word "administration." I have to suspect that they learn to downgrade administration from the examples of many of their academic teachers. When offered the job of president or dean, we academics are apt to treat the offer as a tempting "fall from grace," the grace of "real" intellectual work. Encouraged by the promising support of that academically capable search committee, and aided by the wisdom of Bill May, I had waded into the job, trusting that maybe the Holy Spirit was at work in this moment of turmoil in an institution's history. I did so with the intention of combining administration with teaching and writing.

But from the first moment of trying to deal with Union's talent for challenges to institutions, often in the name of the Holy Spirit's call for justice. one had a great problem: the Spirit seems to lead fellow believers in a variety of directions. For this problem the early chapters of the Book of Acts is full of precedents. Peter or Paul? Apostles plus deacons? In the midst of our echoes of these early organizational quarrels of the Christian movement, there were some Union faculty with a New Testament memory. One of them, of course, was Father Raymond E. Brown. For the engagement of a new president Ray once remarked, "Union seems to work best when the president is a Presbyterian." There was historical resonance in that view. Presbyterians have some protection against the prejudice, rampant in the 1970s, that institutions are enemies of justice. We Presbyterians advocate a connectional system of church governance as a protection against rampant congressional freedom. We have a large respect for both "ruling elders" and "teaching elders.  Like Calvinists generally, we look for signs of divine will at work for justice in society at large. At Union in the 'seventies we had little agreement that justice can have much to do with a balanced budget, including justice to an invisible upcoming generation of students, faculty and staff. One principal job of a board and a president was to focus on these future inhabitants of our walls. That focus is not likely to make a president or a board popular with current constituents. Like most ordained ministers, I confess, I like to be liked! Moreover, coping with anger does not come easily to us southerners. We are used to covering up our anger with soft talk. Often in my first two or three years at UTS I remembered the advice of the Book of Proverbs, "A soft answer turneth away wrath." For the practice of that wisdom I had help. Some of it came from cluster of faculty and non-academic colleagues determined, with me, to hold the place together. One of the latter was James Hayes, who promoted to be our registrar. He was the Radar O'Riley of our local MASH unit. He was often the source information about documents hiding in our files that offered lubrication of certain of our conflicts. He remarked once to me, “Mr. President, there are two things in you that a lot of us admire. One is your marriage. The other is your capacity for absorbing hostility."

I was sure that he knew that the two were connected. I have great respect for single parents and unmarried administrators, but I have to covet for them the certainty that there is a partner waiting for them at dinnertime with whom one at can ventilate about the daily abrasions in human relationship in the institution. A little humor helps. After some of those dinner table stories of the day, our daughter said, "I know that mother and you have wondered whether this family should plan for a fourth child. No need. You already have a fourth: its name is Union Seminary."

Jim Laney's experience as a dean was often worth remembering: partnerships enable the bearing of responsibility. With faculty participation in the budget committee, we managed to convince many that our budget problems were real, and that we all might have to decide together on some unwelcome cutbacks. The help in this process came from my partner Peggy was in her capacity for lightening the seriousness with which we theologians are likely to carry our responsibilities. That gift fitted her as a poet, a craft that she practiced sometimes with a deft distance from our academic pomp and circumstance. Her own work as administrator in two church related jobs fitted her to become the first Union president's wife to have full outside employment. Meantime she managed to join me in the cultivation of donors. It pleased me mightily that at the end of my 16 years, the Union Board decided to replicate the gesture it had extended in the 1980s to President John Bennett and his wife Ann, awarding to both our newly devised Union Medal, imitating the example of our neighbor Barnard College by refraining from offering honorary doctorates.

Were SCE a degree-granting institution, I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking of this moment as akin to an honorary degree moment. Peggy Shriver exercised her poetic gift for describing her feelings about the honorary degree that Central College awarded her a few years ago. About that moment she exercised her gift for poetic satire along with due respect for both theology and academic achievement. Thus, her poem, "Musings on an honorary degree." Its theological caution at the end is appropriate for me in this moment when we are asserting distinction in someone's practice of/ethics. I think of the distinction as modified by the name "Christian" in our society's name. My poet wife so reminded herself and us in her little poem "Musings on an honorary degree," which ends with a sobering bit of theology:

"Have I been hood-winked? Should I be mortified? Or am I a Robin Hood/ with diplomatic Immunity/ until the Final Exam/when I'll discover/ with certainty/ whether one can/ Become honorable by degrees?"

Or by a claim to "distinction" in the academic pursuit of theological ethics. With much gratitude to SCE, but awaiting that Final Exam, I remain your former president.

Don Shriver